UVITA, Puntarenas – If what hotel owner Waldemar Steiner says is true, that a 50-mile stretch of Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast is “young and beautiful like a virgin,” then it may soon be touched for the very first time by Costa Rica’s mega-tourism industry.
Promoters here have dubbed the scenic and somewhat undiscovered coastline, stretching from the central Pacific port town of Quepos south to the sleepy village of Ojochal, “Costa Ballena” after the mystical mammals often seen migrating through the crystal blue waters offshore.
Developers say Costa Ballena is the Costa Rican tourism industry’s Karate Kid, and will eventually grow to be stronger (and perhaps wiser) than its Mr.Miyagi teacher, the booming resort-style tourism industry in northwestern province of Guanacaste.
“2006 can be the beginning of a new era of tourism, with the Southern Zone as tourism’s future… as Costa Rica’s destination in the years to come,” said William Rodríguez, vice-president of the National Tourism Chamber.
Developers here, many who are European, say they can do a better job of developing the area than has been done in Guanacaste. Ordered growth, with respect for nature, local culture and increased conservation will be part of development, they promise.
Before the region’s tourism industry can even think about upping Guanacaste, however, its decrepit infrastructure must be brought into the 21st century and the area’s municipalities must set out zoning plans, according to Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides.
Benavides met with members of the new Costa Ballena Tourism Chamber Saturday at Steiner’s Crystal Ballena Resort, an out-ofsight hotel perched high upon a hilltop south of the beach town Uvita, peaking out of moist tropical rain forest overlooking the region’s beautiful beaches.
The waters off Costa Ballena brush gently against sun-splashed beaches that are gateways into forests where the floor crawls with insects and the canopy shakes with birds and monkeys. Even in the comfort of Crystal Ballena’s luxurious rooms, the occasional haunting belch of a howler monkey reminds visitors of the wilderness beyond.
Whale-watchers come here to worship the massive sea creatures that travel through BallenaNationalMarinePark, one of Costa Rica’s newer national parks and its first national marine park.
Tourists here also enjoy kayak trips through mangroves in the Térraba River, rain forest canopy tours, jungle horseback rides, hikes to spectacular waterfalls, sport fishing, reptile zoos, bird-watching and gnarly surfing waves.
The hard part is getting here.
Trying not to smile, Benavides told the story of a politician who came to a small Costa Rican beach town with a big promise.
The audacious legislator stood in the middle of the crumbling road leading into the town and promised: “I will not come back to this town until this road is fixed!”
“He never came back,” Benavides said, causing a burst of laughter from the crowd gathered at the Crystal Ballena Resort last weekend.
Benavides said he hopes such a thing will not happen here in Costa Ballena, where some developers have been twiddling their thumbs waiting for more infrastructure improvements.
The region’s airport, which handles national flights only, is tiny compared to the larger DanielOduberInternationalAirport in Liberia, which serves the booming Guanacaste tourism industry. A proposed Southern Zone international airport, which would be built in the SierpeValley, five kilometers south of Palmar, would be comparable in size to the Liberia airport (TT,May 27, 2005).
Though Benavides didn’t cross off the possibility that the airport could be constructed by the end of the Arias administration, he said it is not likely. Instead, the administration will aim to have all technical and feasibility studies done during this administration, and to have initiated the concession process, he said.
The Southern Zone Regional Development Board (JUDESUR) is spending $1.15 million in technical studies for the new international airport (TT,March 31).
Those who want to get to Costa Ballena from San José by car or bus have to take lessthan-desirable roads into the area.
The road from San Isidro de El General, a three hour’s drive from San José, west to Dominical Beach is filled with holes.
The coastal road between Quepos and Dominical is a winding marathon of potholes and crumbling asphalt – rickety bridges included. During the rainy season, the rivers occasionally flood, making it all but impossible to cross the bridges. Though there are only 40 kilometers between Quepos and Dominical, it is a bumpy, three-hour ride.
“We have the moral capacity to demand that authorities finish this highway,” said the new Costa Ballena Tourism Chamber president Orlando Castro.
Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) spokesman Fitsroy Villalobos said there is a $35 million plan to refurbish the highway by 2008. He said workers have already begun constructing drainage and patching the highway, and next year will begin repaving the road.
The coastal highway from Dominical south to Ojochal is in excellent condition.
Lessons from Guanacaste
If the region does get an international airport and better access roads, developers here hope the industry will experience a more sustainable, ordered development than they say has occurred in Guanacaste.
While some hope the airport will push the area to become as internationally popular as Guanacaste’s so-called Gold Coast, others worry it will destroy the untouched wilds of a region known for its remoteness (TT,March 31).
Costa Ballena didn’t have electricity a decade ago. As recently as five years ago, it was impossible to get a phone line out here, explained Sonia León, president of the local marine park committee.
The area offers an array of services but only a slew of small hotels and cabinas and a handful of medium-sized hotels, with the largest being the two-year-old, four-star Crystal Ballena Hotel, which has fewer than 20 suites of different sizes spread on a lush, beach-kissing 12-hectare property that was a cow pasture just a decade ago. Though there are development plans in Costa Ballena for larger hotels and a marina, they pale in comparison to mega-projects in Guanacaste.
“I feel the industry here is going to boom,” said Tom Nagel, vice-president of the Costa Ballena Tourism Chamber.He said the new chamber has immediate plans to draw out a Costa Ballena map, set up a Web site and build a regional tourism center.
Nagel said he hopes the Southern Zone will be developed to incorporate the area’s local cultures and ecology, which could in turn attract a different type of tourist than those going to Guanacaste.
“We’re learning (what not to do) from Guanacaste,” agreed Beatrice Delgado, manager of the local Whales and Dolphins Hotel.
Students from the southern indigenous community of Boruca came to Crystal Ballena Saturday to perform a dance with native masks the community sells to tourists in the region.
In additional to cultural preservation, the push for development is being accompanied by a push for better protection of natural resources in the area.
León said she is helping in a push to connect conservation zones from Quepos south to Palmar Norte to create a protected corridor along the southern Pacific coast.